Friday, August 21, 2015

Ashley Madison hack and the new scarlet letter

In the liberal West, an adulterer wouldn't be paraded through the streets in front of a jeering crowd and made to wear a scarlet 'A'. Scarlet letters and public stocks have been relegated to where they should stay: firmly in the past.

This then raises the question: how have we regressed to a place when it's OK to publicly shame people for these actions again?

I recently read the fabulous book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, so these thoughts were front of mind for me while reading about the Ashley Madison hack. The author of the book, Jon Ronson, discusses the real-life implications for people shamed online, and his conclusions left me feeling deeply uncomfortable about the mob-mentality and en-masse schadenfreude that can occur when someone transgresses online, or is caught on camera doing something shameful.  

The idea of public shaming makes me think about the couple in Christchurch caught on camera at work.  I wonder: would those involved have preferred to be paraded up and down the street, or the media and online buzz around their actions? If paraded in front of a jeering crowd, only the people who lined the street that day would have witnessed their shame. Things are much more permanent when they're online, and the potential audience wider. A scarlet letter sewn onto your clothes can be physically removed with more ease than your Google results, especially when your name is linked to something shameful.

Sure, the Ashley Madison website looks seedy and icky, and I wouldn't be terribly impressed if anyone close to me was a member. But, before making the names public, we still need to ask ourselves what is to be gained from naming and shaming. If no laws were broken and the people involved - including previously unsuspecting partners and children - are likely to be more hurt and humiliated by the details being shared in the public domain (like this woman in Australia), why do people share such information? Some people share with malicious intent, but I think that more often it's just people enjoying a laugh at someone else's expense.  We like and share and comment about things that happen online all the time, and forget that it's real people that we're talking about. 

Before we share such information about people caught cheating, we have to ask ourselves: if this person was being paraded down the street for their transgression, would we go and jeer at them? Would we insist that they wear an "A" on their chest? Throw rotten fruit at them? I haven't spoken to anyone who uploaded videos of the Christchurch couple online or shared it on Facebook, but would be interested in their answer. I suspect that most of the people would say 'no'. They just shared the information because they thought it was funny. 

And if your answer to either of these questions is 'no' regarding the Ashley Madison names, then you really shouldn't be shaming the individuals via likes and shares either. Because, after all, it really is the same thing.  

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